I honestly don’t think branches will be extinct anytime soon. Yes, I think they will drastically shrink in size/staff as transactional activity is eliminated. But they are part of the American landscape, provide a convenient place to open accounts, and reinforce your brand.
Or do they?
I spent 34 minutes in a branch today and came away with a number of brand impressions, none of them good. Here’s the blow-by-blow account (skip to the Bottom Line section if you, too, have recently sent a wire from a bank branch).
Yesterday, I went to a small branch of a major bank to send a $20,000 international wire, something I’ve done only once before. I missed the “12 or 12:30” cutoff time and was told I’d need to come back tomorrow (note 1). They were nice about it, but it was 15 to 20 minutes wasted, although I did grab a tasty Americano across the street, so it wasn’t all bad.
Today, I was near a much larger branch, so I decided to give it a try, hoping that the process would go faster with more staff available. It was mid-morning on a Friday (note 2) with only two or three customers in the branch and at least six employees, so I thought I’d made a good decision. Unfortunately, the only person available that could process an international wire was the busy branch manager (note 3), and I was directed to a seat on the couch where I waited for 12 minutes watching the six employees handle a trickle of customers.
No one approached me during this time to offer an update on the wait. Finally, the harried branch manager stepped over and apologized for being “slammed” (even though the branch was nearly deserted) and went on to explain his staffing woes that would soon be over since there were “three job offers out at that moment.”
At that point, I had to turn over my driver’s license, tell him my Social Security Number, and then wait another 22 minutes as he hammered away on the computer to complete the wire. At least once I’m pretty sure he was typing an email to someone, and he also made a quick phone call about another matter. Along the way, he asked me for the symbol for British pounds. Since I didn’t know, he proceeded to the back room (where more employees were hidden, note 4), and since they didn’t know, he said he would Google it. And he did.
Next, he handed me all the info on the transfer so I could proof his work. And, like the last time I sent an in-branch wire, an error popped out. The form stated payment was for a boat, which, besides being incorrect, was especially interesting since the money was headed to London. He blamed the autofill on the computer (why would autofill be enabled on wire transfer forms?).
I said I wished this could be done online, and he said it had to be done in branch to reduce fraud and money-laundering. While that may have been an okay answer, he then contradicted himself and said if I did more than two wires per month, I should consider the bank’s $100/mo commercial service. So much for the fraud problem, I guess.
Finally, he walked across the room to call in the wire (why didn’t he use the phone on his desk?). He completed the process by scratching in pencil on the back of his business card my confirmation number and U.S. dollar equivalent of the transfer (see inset). Apparently, the branch’s wire system doesn’t provide an automated receipt.
Bottom line: Branch proponents say that consumers value the “personal touch” and hand-holding that branches provide on major transactions. And that those warm feelings create trust and positive brand associations.
So what were my takeaway “brand impressions” after my experience today? (And I’m not saying these things are necessarily true, but they are my very real perceptions).
- They do not value my time: First, I had to make a second trip since I’d missed the cutoff. Then on the second trip, it took 34 minutes to complete the process.
- The bank is inefficient: The branch manager had to spend 22 minutes with me to generate $50 in fees. And I was in a huge, 10,000 square-foot structure with a large parking lot and 30-foot ceilings, that was serving a trickle of customers with a bevy of staffers.
- The staff is poorly trained and/or lack tech support: The branch is “slammed” with 3 customers across 6 employees! The branch manager has to use Google to fill out the wire transfer form.
- The systems are cobbled together: Employees have to find currency abbreviations on their own. The wire had to be “called” in by the branch manager. My “receipt” was handwritten on a business card.
- They made me feel less than secure: I had to tell him my Social Security Number out loud, which is always unnerving when you don’t really know who’s listening. And they left me scratching my head about wire fraud.
- It must be a crappy place to work: They were down 3 employees, despite a 9+% unemployment rate.
On the plus side: The staff was very friendly, cookies were on the counter, and I got a blog post out of it. That helps. A lot.
1. I’m not sure why they couldn’t take my info today and send the wire tomorrow, something they had done before on a domestic wire.
2. He did mention something about an “operational audit” going on, so this might not be the normal experience. Although the last time I sent a wire at another branch, it took even longer because that manager “was learning the new system.”
3. The astute reader will notice that today is Wednesday, not Friday. I wrote this a few weeks ago on a Friday afternoon and held it until today. Frankly, I wasn’t sure whether to publish another “analyst whines about customer service” post. I promise it’s my last one of the year.
4. I’m not naming the bank, because this is a story about two visits to two branches which may or may not reflect what goes on in other parts of the bank. But I will name the bank via private email if you promise not to publish it. Just drop me a line.
5. Graphic upper right: Kinesis